Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la la la la la,
’Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la la la la la.
Monday, 24th December 1928
Very few people turned Phryne Fisher down. She wasn’t used to it. With her looks, which were those of the cinema star Louise Brooks, her wealth, which was that of Croesus, her élan, which was remarkable, and her appetites, which were reputed to be those of an unusually broadminded nymph, she didn’t hear ‘No’ a lot. Mostly people said nothing but a correctly phrased ‘Yes, please.’ It was therefore with some astonishment that she realised her beloved Lin Chung was, indeed, turning her down as flat as the linenfold panelling of her boudoir.
‘No,’ he said patiently. ‘I really can’t, Phryne.’
‘Can’t?’ she asked, rolling over with a flash of thighs and sitting up to consider his strange, uncooperative attitude. ‘Or won’t?’
‘Both, really.’ Lin Chung buttoned his loose blue shirt over his admirably smooth torso. ‘I have to preside over my old Great Great Uncle’s funeral. I liked him, Phryne. He was a brave old man. I would not skimp on his ceremonies. Grandmamma is ill. Camellia needs my presence. I cannot justify neglecting the venerable dead and taking a week off from my business in order to play cowboys and Indians in Werribee with the Templars, Phryne.’
‘Aha,’ she said, observing him closely. ‘You don’t like them, do you?’
Lin shrugged his collar around his neck and stabbed the fastening closed. He reached for his light blazer.
‘No, I do not like them. I do not approve of them, either. Those bright young things burn far too bright for me.’
‘There’s something behind this attitude,’ she commented, dragging a dressing gown on and belting it tightly.
‘Probably. I am influenced by a number of things,’ admitted Lin. ‘But the conclusion of it is, I cannot accompany you to the Last Best Party of 1928, and I hope you are not too grievously disappointed.’
‘Surprised more than disappointed,’ she said. ‘You won’t change your mind?’
‘I regret,’ he said, giving her that sidelong glance which she thought of as quintessentially Chinese.
‘Then I shall find my own company,’ she declared.
‘As you wish,’ he agreed.
The boudoir was silent for a moment, as Ember the cat arose from his silken nest and paused at the closed door, mouth open in a plaintive but entirely unvoiced meow. Phryne jumped up and let him out.
‘A drink,’ she said, and escorted her lover onto the landing.
The bijou residence of the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher, located in the desirable if a little scruffy suburb of St. Kilda in the town of Melbourne, was home to the said Miss Fisher, her maid and constant companion Miss Dorothy Williams, her adopted daughters Jane and Ruth, home from school for the holidays, her cat Ember, the girls’ dog Molly, a shrill but persistent canary which Dot was minding while her sister was making other arrangements for it, and Mr. and Mrs. Butler, the bulwarks of the establishment. Phryne had secured their services by offering a very good salary with very good conditions and never interfering in the manner in which they ran the house. Mr. Butler buttled, orchestrated cocktails which would have made him a deity in any alcohol based religion and drove the Hispano-Suiza whenever Phryne would let him. Mrs. Butler cooked and kept the house. Other functionaries came in by the day to dust and polish, and the laundry, of course, went to the Chinese, who understood about starch and never lost so much as a pillowcase.
One of the perks of the Fisher household was that apart from their own bedroom and parlour, Mr. Butler had a small cubbyhole called a butler’s pantry in which to entertain his own intimates. It was just big enough for a sink and the tasting glasses, a couple of chairs and a window that looked out into the fernery, which was full of orchids. The window was open. A scent of jasmine floated in. The afternoon was at three, the port was remarkably fragrant, and Mr. Butler was content with the world. Especially since Dot had volunteered to do the refreshments should Phryne decide that she wanted any. A jug of Pimm’s Number One Cup was already mixed and in the new, huge, American Ice-maker and Refrigerator.
Mr. Butler filled his guest’s glass and said comfortingly, ‘Don’t take on so, Tom.’
‘Oh, it’s all very well for you,’ said Tom Ventura, pettishly. ‘You and your Miss Fisher and your cellar full of port. You’re comfortable enough, I dare say. You don’t have a house party which is going to take as much organising as a small war only half done and you, and I say this for your ears only, Tobias, you don’t have an employer who’s half off his head all the time. And her head. They’re both bloody mad.’
‘My Miss Fisher can be a bit excitable,’ said Mr. Butler judiciously. ‘But she’s very reasonable.’
‘Not so the Templars,’ groaned Mr. Ventura.
‘They can’t be that bad,’ soothed Mr. Butler. His guest choked on the good port and would have leapt up, eyes flaming, if he had not been so tired. Besides, the dog Molly was asleep on his feet. Mr. Ventura liked dogs. His voice, however, rose to a cracked shriek.
‘Eleven times the whole plan has been changed! Eleven! Each time I have had to recalculate all the accommodations, the staff, the hampers, the amounts of drink and food, the timing of deliveries—the difficulties would make a devil weep!’
‘Now, now, Tom, where are those drops the doctor gave you? Here,’ said Mr. Butler, sloshing some into a clean glass and adding water. ‘Take these and just sit quiet for a little. I didn’t mean to upset you.’
Molly rose from her couch and licked Mr. Ventura’s hand. She was a compassionate dog and, besides, she loved the taste of valerian. Mrs. Butler opened the door and offered a small tray on which a coffee pot reposed. Mr. Butler took it. Amazing woman, his Aurelia. Always understood what was going on.
He poured a demitasse for Mr. Ventura and observed, ‘I know that my Miss Fisher is going to your party, Tom. And I know that your twins—the Golden Twins, the paper called them—your Gerald and Isabella Templar have hired the old Chirnside place at Werribee from the Catholics for this house party. Called the Last Best Party of 1928, reputed to be costing a fortune, and all the guests to be housed in tents on the grounds for the whole five days, full of fun and sensation and the Lord knows what goings-on. Not like my Miss Fisher to stay in a tent,’ mused the butler, taking another sip of port and observing that his guest seemed to be recovering. ‘And I know that the weather is going to be hot and the police have been taking a dim view.’
‘Then,’ said Tom Ventura, ‘you know a lot. I’ve been chasing down ice-making machines for the Palace of Glass all day. Do you know how many ice-making machines you need for that much ice? It’s like staging the Great Exhibition. And I don’t think I’m going to get a knighthood out of it, I really don’t.’ He contemplated the dregs in his coffee cup. Mr. Butler refilled it. ‘And just as likely when I get back he’ll say he’s changed his mind and we don’t need the Palace of Glass anyway—or not where I’ve put it—and perhaps we could have a Gothic castle instead. Then she’ll egg him on and…I don’t know how long I can stand this,’ he said plaintively.
‘Why did you take them on?’ asked Mr. Butler, a little censoriously. He had conducted careful enquiries into the character of Miss Fisher before he accepted a place in her household.
‘Oh, I thought they would be exciting,’ said Tom Ventura, patting Molly. ‘I was bored. I remember being bored,’ he added. ‘It was nice. I didn’t appreciate it at the time.’
The bell rang. Mr. Butler heard Dot get up from her seat at the kitchen table, where she and Mrs. Butler had been amiably shelling one hundred chestnuts for stuffing the Christmas goose. Removing two strongly adherent shells from the annoying nuts was a job best done in company. He heard Dot say, as she laid her chestnut down with a click, ‘That’s ninety-three, Mrs. Butler.’
In her parlour, Phryne noted the approach of the jug of Pimm’s Number One Cup, with its slices of cucumber and sprigs of mint, with pleasure. She liked the burned-sugar flavour of the gin-based cup, but required it to be double-diluted and the glass jug packed with ice, preferably rasped. This jug was so cold that it was breathing little chilly clouds into the tepid air.
‘Mr. Butler still in conclave?’ she asked. Dot nodded, put down her plate of cheese straws and poured out two glasses of Pimm’s.
‘That poor man is having a terrible time with those Templars,’ she commented. ‘But me and Mrs. B have almost finished the chestnuts. Are you sure you can manage tomorrow, Miss?’ she asked. Dot yielded to no one in her opinion of her employer’s daring and courage, but took a very poor view of her domestic talents, which even Phryne admitted were negligible.
‘My sister Eliza and her friend Lady Alice Harborough will manage. They used to run soup kitchens for the poor and apparently they are managing very well in that nice little house Bert found for them. Eliza has been having cooking lessons and they have bought their very own copy of Mrs. Beeton,’ Phryne replied, sipping with delight. ‘Perfectly freezing! This new ice refrigeration machine was a good investment. Won’t you have a glass, Dot dear?’
‘Too cold for me,’ said Dot. ‘Makes my teeth ache. Miss? I really don’t like you being without me and the Butlers for so long.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Phryne bracingly. ‘You will like seeing all your relatives, the Butlers want to see their married daughter’s new child, and all I have to do is go to church and supervise the lunch—and if all goes totally disastrous there is a nice collection of canned things and plenty to drink. My sister and the girls and I are old campaigners, Dot dear; unless we burn down the house I don’t see how it can go very wrong. Just pack up your hampers. Don’t forget the sweets and the crackers and the crystallised fruits and the chocolates and Mrs. B’s mince pies, and I’ve put out a bottle or two of the good port for your father. He’ll probably get a case of the old Fisher gout, but we can’t have everything.’
Dot was a plain young woman with a long brown plait, coiled into a bun at the back of her neck. She always dressed in earth colours. Even her apron was beige. She had a fresh complexion and very kind eyes, but no one would have called her beautiful until they saw her smile, and she smiled now, dazzling Lin Chung. Dot was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude and Christmas spirit. She leaned down and kissed Phryne’s blooming cheek, and then hurried herself back to the chestnuts. Miss Fisher might hand over this gem of a goose to her sister’s uncertain handling and it might turn out tough, but it would not lack its purée de marrons if Dot had anything to do with it.
‘She seems happy,’ commented Lin Chung, sipping his drink and freezing his tongue. Miss Fisher, his concubine, did tend to extremes. Her chosen vindaloo made him weep and gulp from the water jug and this drink was colder than the Nether Hells. But he liked her extremes, so he set the glass down to melt.
‘Dot has a talent for being happy,’ said Phryne, refilling her glass.
‘So, how are the preparations for Christmas coming along?’ he asked easily.
‘Without undue difficulty. All the presents are assembled, the crackers ready, the menu planned, the food bought. The girls are in their room working on the finishing touches to their presents, I believe, at this moment. Dot has bought a sack of gifts for her own family. It’s my first Christmas here. It really doesn’t seem right, the sun shining and the birds singing at Christmas, which is in the heart of winter at home. Still, we can walk to midnight mass without slipping on the ice on the way. And I can leave the atheists here to mind the stove while I go to a nice, rousing, Christmas carol service in the morning.’
‘Sounds very pleasant,’ said Lin, unwisely relaxing.
‘And what did the Templars do to you?’ she asked.
‘Their hearties played a game of “fling the Chinaman” with my young cousin. Very amusing, no doubt, but they might have ascertained if he could swim before they threw him into the Thames. They stood on the bank and watched him struggle, and they laughed. A boatman and I managed to drag him out before he actually succumbed to the water and the cold.’
‘How horrible,’ said Phryne, without emphasis, watching him closely.
‘So I owe the Templars—oh, undying loathing, and they owe me two rather good tailored suits. Not to mention spending a week talking my cousin out of quitting university and going to be a monk.’
‘How did you talk him out of it?’
‘I turned him over to Li Pen and told him to keep the boy to his own spare vegetarian diet and to make him do martial arts exercises all day. After a week, he confessed that he preferred the fleshpots and went back to university. He is a very good doctor. It would have been a pity to waste him.’
Lin took a gulp of his drink and gasped. All of his teeth shrieked for mercy.
‘Detestable,’ said Phryne. ‘But they throw a wonderful party.’
‘Yes, and I don’t mind you going to it—much,’ said Lin honestly. ‘But I really can’t do it myself. Every time I see that Gerald’s golden laughing face I get an irresistible urge to hit it with a brick.’
‘Understood,’ said Phryne.
They imbibed gently for a while.
The afternoon post was carried in by Jane and Ruth, who were allowed a sip of Mr. Lin’s drink as a reward. While investigating a gruesome murder on the Ballarat train, Phryne had acquired the pale, studious Jane, whose destiny was to be a doctor, provided someone made her catch the right tram and turn up to her exams and meals on time. This person was Ruth, darker and plumper, who had been rescued from grim domestic slavery by Phryne’s commie mates Bert and Cec and who could not be left behind. Phryne had never meant to have daughters but found them interesting and rewarding. Jane was sucking her finger.
‘Sewing wounds?’ asked Phryne, sympathetically.
‘Yes, but it’s all done now,’ said Jane. ‘What a lot of cards! Can I open some?’
‘By all means, here is the letter knife. Make sure that you keep the envelopes together until we can list who sent them. Lin will help,’ said Phryne, volunteering him heartlessly.
Ruth, whose interests were culinary, had slipped away to the kitchen to watch Mrs. Butler stuff the goose. She had seen chickens, pigeons, quail, pheasant, spatchcock, duck and turkey stuffed, but never goose. It might prove different and Mrs. Butler’s accompanying lecture was always worth hearing.
Mr. Butler was showing his companion out as Ruth came into the kitchen.
‘It will be all right on the night, you’ll see,’ he murmured soothingly.
Mr. Ventura laughed bitterly. Ruth gave him a sympathetic smile and he patted her on the head in passing. She did not like being patted on the head, but if it made this harassed man feel better she was willing to put up with it. Tom Ventura had been a frequent visitor over the last week and Ruth was sorry for him.
‘Hello, little Miss Ruth,’ he said. ‘You still want to be a cook?’
‘Yes, sir,’ she said.
‘Stick with it,’ he advised, and went on into the hall.
‘Ah, Ruth, catch hold of this wing, will you?’ said Mrs. Butler. ‘We need to truss it close, or all the stuffing will burst out.’
They struggled with the anointed, slippery, dead bird for a moment, before Mrs. Butler flipped it onto its back and subdued any possibility of escape by looping string around both wings and securing it with a parcel knot. ‘Good,’ she said, pushing forward a bowl of a palish brown substance. ‘Have a morsel. That’s purée de marrons, it’s taken Dot and me all morning to peel the dratted things, but it tastes good, eh?’
Ruth rolled herself a little ball of the forcemeat, put it into her mouth, considered, and grinned. Mrs. Butler grinned back. No faddy appetites in Miss Fisher’s house. Mrs. Butler and Ruth continued operations on the goose. When it was stuffed and slicked and larded and wrapped and back in the American Icemaker and Refrigerator, Mrs. Butler put her plump, clean cook’s hand on Ruth’s shoulder and spoke very solemnly.
‘I’m leaving you with the luncheon, Ruth. I know Miss Fisher’s sister used to run a soup kitchen but that’s no recommendation to a lady’s house. You’ve been with me all year and you’ve learned a lot. I wouldn’t trust many young girls with it, but I’m trusting you. I know you won’t disappoint me.’
Ruth’s adolescent breast swelled with pride and she covered Mrs. Butler’s hand with one just as clean.
‘I won’t let you down,’ she vowed, as transported as the young Saint Joan.
‘Good girl.’ Mrs. Butler bent backwards and stretched. ‘Now there’s just time before we start lunch for a sit-down, a nice cuppa and one of those mince pies. The mince pies worked out very well this year. You never know with them, it all depends on the quality of the dried fruit…’
Ruth put on the kettle and bustled about, listening with infinite pleasure to cook’s chorus or kitchen shop, which covers all the vagaries of the human appetite and the natural world, and goes on forever.
In the parlour, Lin was sorting envelopes by size and passing them to Jane, who was sitting on the hearthrug surrounded by pretty scenes of robins and snow and Father Christmas. Phryne was filling out late cards for the people to whom she hadn’t sent a card. A distressingly large number, it seemed. Fortunately there were three postal deliveries a day at this time of the year and plenty of time. Her own Christmas card consisted of a very pretty photograph of the Fisher ménage with ‘compliments of the season’ scrolled underneath in silver-gilt. The photographer’s name, Forrester, appeared in little letters on the back.
‘And there we all are,’ said Phryne to herself, contemplating the group. Posed in a pretty garden under a jasmine bower were, front, sitting on a picnic rug, Jane and Ruth, with Molly. Ember the black cat had declined to cooperate. Then, seated, Eliza and Phryne, flanked by (standing) Lady Alice and Dot. Dot had never been photographed before. She wore an expression of grim determination which was very comical. Behind them were Mrs. and Mrs. Butler.
The card was useful for all of the family, though Lin Chung, like Ember, had resolutely declined to be reproduced on a three-inch by five-inch card. Its lack of Christian symbolism meant that Lady Alice and Eliza could send it to their Fabian Socialist friends. Mr. and Mrs. Butler were tickled at being included on a card and Mrs. Butler considered that her best hat had come out very well. The girls were relieved at not having to choose Christmas cards for their few friends at their public school, as the form and nature of the very cards themselves seemed to be a quagmire of fashionable danger. Phryne was pleased to have such a presentable family and the quiet design of the card was in the best of taste.
Which could not be said for the rest of them spilling out of their envelopes onto the rug, but they were cheerful and the senders meant well, and Phryne had always rather liked Christmas. In her impoverished childhood it had marked the beginning of a new year. Then, after the grand dislocation caused by her father’s unexpected accession to the baronetcy, wealth and tedium. In her father’s manor, it was marked with huge meals, dances, more huge meals, and the infliction of compulsory goodwill on the innocent tenantry, who just wanted to get on with their dinner in peace. Phryne had ensured that she was always welcomed with open arms in the cottages by staying for less than ten minutes, always bearing bottles of port, and passing small amounts of cash to the mothers and copious sweets to the children. Here in Australia she was free of social duties. Which reminded her to send a cheque to Edward Dunne, a Quaker who did useful work amongst the poor. While she was writing it, she heard Jane exclaim and drop the letter knife.
‘What’s the matter, did you cut yourself?’ asked Lin Chung, concerned. Except when it came to dissection, Jane was a butterfingers.
‘No,’ said Jane. ‘It’s this card. Miss Phryne, look!’
She turned over a card which depicted the usual snow and robin. Inside it bore a carefully drawn skull and crossbones.
‘Not very Christmassy,’ commented Phryne as it was handed to her. ‘Good drawing, though. “Don’t go near the Last Best Party”,’ she read aloud, ‘“or it will be your Last Party of All”. Well, well. Signed, “A Well-Wisher”.’
‘How curious,’ said Jane.
‘Curious indeed,’ said Phryne. ‘That decides me. I hadn’t sent in my invitation card. I’ll do it directly.’
‘But someone doesn’t want you to go to that party,’ Lin pointed out. He had shuddered a little at the sight of the Jolly Roger. Pirates were something of a delicate topic for Lin Chung. They were, for example, the reason why he was missing an ear.
‘Yes, and won’t it be interesting to find out who and why?’ she answered sweetly, and he watched her sign the gold embossed invitation to the Last Best Party of 1928, to be held from December 27th to the 1st of January at Werribee. She folded it into a plain envelope addressed to Gerald and Isabella Templar, care of the Windsor Hotel, Melbourne.
‘Alea jacta est,’ said Phryne, and rang for a gin and tonic.
Lin sighed. The die was, indeed, cast.
The Joker fanned the cards. The movement was practised and deft. They were hand-painted Italian playing cards from the eighteenth century, when decoration was arcane and whimsical. He smiled as he looked at their faces. They were all jokers.